A Turkish protester holds up a banner with pictures of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) and Turkish cleric and head of the Gulen movement, Fethullah Gulen (R), during an anti-government and anti-corruption demonstration in Istanbul in December 2013. (Source: AFP/Ozan Kose)

A Turkish protester holds up a banner with pictures of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) and Turkish cleric and head of the Gulen movement, Fethullah Gulen (R), during an anti-government and anti-corruption demonstration in Istanbul in December 2013. (Source: AFP/Ozan Kose)

Neutral and efficiently run state institutions are among the most important factors in the development of nation-states. They not only guarantee well-run public services, but also ensure that citizens have faith in the state’s competency and ability to protect each and every individual equally. Establishing effective state institutions has been a particularly arduous task in the Middle East, where nation-states developed later than in other regions, often as a result of decades long European colonization.

Across the region, institutional malaise abounds. Among the Arab monarchies, state institutions are often stacked with members of the royal family, and serve royal, rather than popular, interests. For their part, the region’s republics have been sites of inefficient bureaucratic expansion. They have often failed to achieve nationwide state control, thereby limiting their influence mostly to major metropolises.

Across the Middle East and North Africa, radical changes in governments, mainly through coup d’états, have led to the re-staffing of state institutions for the purpose of consolidating power – inevitably, as a result of these practices, more experienced employees have been replaced by untested newcomers, with devastating effects on bureaucratic efficiency and competence.

Against this regional backdrop, the development of the modern Turkish state has reflected a combination of these various challenges, as well as difficulties unique to the Turkish context. At the moment, Turkey finds itself at the centre of a destabilizing power struggle between the ruling AKP party and a transnational religious and social organization called the Gulen Movement. At the heart of this power struggle lies the corruption probe against the AKP, causing further political instability. These crises point, however, to a more fundamental problem – the fact that Turkey has failed to create a professional, independent, and non-ideological state with institutions that reflect government neutrality and separation of powers.

AKP versus the Gulen Movement: Destroying the Agreement?

Ideologies are a critical part of any nation-station, playing a significant role in electoral processes, as well as within government itself. Every state embodies some sort of ideology, or is an amalgam of similar or overlapping belief systems. But, in a developed nation-state, concrete social and economic policies should become the primary distinguishing factor between political parties, rather than ideological fervour.

Ideologically driven politics are at the forefront of Turkey’s current problems, and the AKP government, which has been in power since 2002, is set on imposing its ideology upon society as well as the institutions of the Turkish state.  But the threats to the Turkish state do not end here. While the current government has tried to consolidate its power through various state institutions, bringing the judiciary under its control, censoring critical media, and altering the education system in favor of its own ideology, the Gulen movement, a non-elected political power, with its own set of beliefs, has also been infiltrating state institutions and trying to influence both domestic policy and the very fabric of Turkish society. According to AKP leader and Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erodan, Gluen’s attempts to invade state structures are the manoeuvrings of “a deep state.” However, his accusations seem to ignore that the actions of his party have been replacing the military dominated “deep state” with a civilian one.

Preacher from Across the Ocean: the Gulen Movement

The Gulen Movement is headed by Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Islamic scholar and preacher who fled Turkey in 2004 and now lives in self-imposed exile in the United States. Though it is difficult to track down specific information about the organization, the Gulen movement consists of a structured network of schools, media corporations, and education centres across the globe and a loosely affiliated network of individuals in all sectors of Turkish state and society that either share the movement’s ideology or interests.

The Gulen movement is different from what is called Milli Görüş [The National Perspective] to which all Turkish Islamist political parties belong to some extent. While Milli Görüş had a narrowly Turkish political agenda, merging Islam with Turkish nationalism, the Gulen, also called the Hizmet movement, has a more internationalist outlook to political Islam. The movement has tried to establish good relations with all governments that have come to power in Turkey, including leftist administrations, in order to retain and expand its presence and reach in the country.

Gulen’s primary aim is to foster a generation of pious individuals using education, the media, and civil society organizations as part of a project of social engineering. The movement has inserted its followers into state institutions, such as the police and the judiciary, and has positioned its supporters and other like-minded individuals in significant government posts to gain power and expand the movement’s influence.

Until 2012, most of the Turkish public believed the Gulen Movement and the AKP were cooperating extensively with one another, particularly when Erdogan implicitly invited Mr. Gulen to return to Turkey as a symbolic gesture of appeasement.  Many believed there was also cooperation between Erdogan and Gulen during the “Ergenekon” case when the two Islamic movements in Turkey allied together to decrease the influence of the military in politics.

It has become clear, however, that whatever agreements the AKP and the Gulen movement may have had are now crumbling as the ruling party refuses to grant further concessions to Gulen and his followers. Many believe 2012 was the start of tensions between the two groups. On February 7, 2012, the Turkish police, which is widely seen as backing the Gulen Movement, initiated an investigation against the chief of Turkey’s intelligence services, Hakan Fidan, for negotiating with Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdish separatist group, PKK. Many saw this as an indirect attack by Gulen on Prime Minister Erdogan as Fidan was the prime minister’s closest behind the scenes partner in the Kurdish peace process.

The second and even bigger point of tension between the two groups occurred when the AKP decided to shut down private teaching institutions that had been essential to students preparing for national university exams and were widely believed to be a significant part of the Gulen empire.

The Latest Attack: Is the Corruption Probe Just the Tip of the Iceberg?

The war between the Gulen movement and the AKP took a particularly dramatic turn at the end of 2013. On December 17, the Istanbul police force initiated the first wave of arrest operations against government politicians charged with corruption and bribery, as well as the sons of the Ministers of Economy, Interior and the Environment.

This has been one of the most extensive corruption cases against the government in the country’s history. On December 18, the scale of events reached new levels when five police chiefs were removed from their posts. The move was understood as retaliation by the government for the arrest of AKP politicians.

Erdogan had already announced plans to re-shuffle his cabinet prior to the corruption scandal. After the political drama unfolded, however, the prime minister conducted an extensive “purge,” replacing as many as ten ministers. While Erdogan clearly intended to sanitize the AKP as well as his own reputation, the move came too late and was tarnished by the voluntary resignation of one minister. On January 7th, the Minister for Environment and Urban Planning, Erdogan Bayraktar, called on Erdogan to resign, arguing that the prime minister would have had to approve most of the work subject to the probe, and would have, therefore, been aware of any corruption. Interestingly, this minister had withdrawn his resignation on February 3rd, “apologizing” to Erdogan and the party. His change of heart symbolized both the interest-based attitudes of the party’s high level politicians as well as the lack of a different organization that could accommodate the numerous AKP members who had resigned since the corruption probe.

If further corruption allegations surface, the power struggle between the AKP and the Gulen movement will likely intensify. In recent months, major Turkish cities, particularly Ankara, have witnessed an almost entire revamping of the top ranks of the police force. It is likely that the corruption allegations pushed the governing party to reshuffle the ranks of the police and replace its top commanders with entirely new officers who would be loyal to the government.

Moreover, thousands of policemen have been removed from their posts or re-allocated after the corruption case surfaced. This has been interpreted as the government’s means of purging the police force – deemed a stronghold of the Gulen Movement – of Gulenists. Although exact motives behind these re-allocations are unclear, such a massive re-shuffling suggests extraordinary measures are taken by the government to protect itself from its perceived threats.

No More Hope for an Independent Judiciary?

The government’s handling of this episode is indicative of the AKP’s desire to avoid prosecution and prevent any further investigation into its actions – a clear breach of the principle of separation of powers.

The deputy chief public prosecutor of Istanbul Zekeriya Öz, the initial prosecutor of the corruption case, was removed from his post by the Ministry of Justice and replaced by Muammer Akdaş who was also later removed for unannounced reasons. After the corruption probe, the government also interfered in the judiciary by changing the rules of cooperation between the courts and the police. Before this legal amendment, the police were required to follow the orders of the prosecutor in any investigation. According to this rule change, the police must now keep their chiefs informed about every step of an investigation. While previously the police had been positioned as an investigative tool of an independent judiciary, this reform aimed to bring all police activity under the direct leadership of the Ministry of Interior, away from the courts and prosecutors that are meant to be independent in a democratic system. Accordingly, the Danıştay, the Council of State, rejected the reform, symbolizing another rift between the judiciary and the current government.

By moving ultimate investigative authority away from the judiciary to the police, a sub-branch of the Ministry of Interior, the executive branch tried to increase its power and influence at the expense of the courts. Labeled “unconstitutional” by the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors, this undemocratic move is an extension of the AKP’s historical power struggle with the formerly independent judiciary.

After the corruption probe began, the AKP proposed a new law to restrict the independence of the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), which is responsible for the appointments and the disciplinary system of the judiciary. According to the new law, the Ministry of Justice would appoint the Supreme Council’s president, who would have a high degree of influence over the judicial decision making process. This framework would ensure the council was securely under the Ministry of Justice’s control. Proposals like this reveal how the government views the corruption scandal and its aftermath as a warning to tighten its control over state institutions. The bill was passed on February 15th, and it is thus safe to say that the principle of the separation of powers in Turkey has received a significant blow.

On February 23rd, recordings of Erdogan’s phone conversations surfaced in the Turkish media as evidence of the PM’s involvement in the alleged corruption scandals. While the recordings have yet to be verified, the HSYK has decided to pursue an investigation into their contents. Meanwhile, Erdogan and his supporters continue to claim these are mere conspiracies aiming to weaken the popular standing of the party prior to the upcoming local elections in March, the presidential elections in June and the general elections next year.

Conclusion: No Victory for the Public

Prime Minister Erdogan has been continuously arguing that foreign forces are conspiring against an increasingly powerful Turkey and attacking the state through the AKP, in the hopes it will lose local and presidential elections in 2014 and general elections in 2015.

Erdogan has clearly stated his readiness to stand against efforts by any non-elected force, internal or external, to destabilize Turkey. While theories of foreign conspirators are arguably far fetched, it remains unclear where the Gulen movement really stands and what its intentions are. What is clear, however, is that the recent scandal and its aftermath have forced the Turkish public to face a dim reality: that the state is rotting from within without the institutions necessary for an accountable and liberal government. The only thing keeping the state going is the fervent power struggle between different ideological factions aiming to control the country.

Despite less than clear knowledge about their manoeuvrings, it is safe to say that the desire of both the AKP and Gulen movement to control Turkey’s state institutions is most definitely illegitimate. If one views this battle as one between an elected and an unelected faction, the elected party would, legally speaking, be in the right. It is, however, vital not to fall into this formulaic trap. While the Gulen movement has no claim to the state, the AKP also has no legal or moral right to impose its ideology onto the workings of the country’s government.


*Zeynep Kosereisoglu is a staff writer for Muftah. She holds an MA in Near and Middle East Studies from SOAS, London. You can follow her on twitter @izeynepk

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